John Hapgood and America’s ‘Ghost Army’

Fri, 10/07/2022 - 2:15pm

How does one sum up the core contributions of someone’s limited time on this small planet? While the answers are as diverse as those who seek to give the response, as a historian, my mind centers on the tool of
the biography. A biography could come in many forms, including the notion of thousands of words written down in an attempt to sum up the meaning of one person’s contribution once they are no longer. One could argue that a more challenging biography exists. This example, while composed of written words, does not reside on paper but is etched in rock and limited to the size of a headstone. On a recent walk in the Island Cemetery, I surveyed three centuries’ worth of headstones seeking to accomplish this feat. Toward the western edge I found a stone under the shade of a tree. Under the name John Hapgood, written in beautifully flowing script, the first line under his name was a single word summing up his 90 years from 1905-1995, that of, “Artist.” The next noted his service in the U.S. Army as a soldier in World War II.
A number of winters ago I interviewed Mrs. Maureen Hoyt about her family’s late lifelong friend John Hapgood. Mrs. Hoyt’s parents, Charlie and Edith Martin, were friends of Hapgood’s before the start of World War II. Hapgood’s impressive artistic career as a graphic commercial artist in New York City placed him in top social circles in Manhattan, including having his work in The New Yorker and going to movies with the Hollywood starlet Katharine Hepburn. However, my interview did not seek out these details related to the tinsel of the 1950s, but rather sought out details of his unique U.S. Army unit in World War II called the “Ghost Army.” After the war, he
resided at the Shelton Hotel, room 3110, in New York and summered on 11 acres near the Southeast Light House.
Hapgood’s importance to the Martin family is seen from the start. In fact, in 1931 Charlie asked Hapgood (who knew Edith from his social circles of Rochester, N.Y.) for a formal introduction to his future wife. Their courtship included introducing Charlie Martin and John Hapgood to Block Island, were she had spent a large portion of her early childhood. They were married in 1933. Hapgood’s friendship with the Martins remained constant, however, with the start of World War II, and with Hapgood pushing nearly 40 years old, he signed up with the U.S. Army.
During the war Charlie Martin purchased a parcel of land on the southeast side of the island with a derelict house. Writing his friend Hapgood, then on the front in Europe, he stated the cost was $750 and if he wanted it he could have it. A response from Hapgood soon recrossed the Atlantic recommending quickly snatching up the property. Hapgood, who was also known to his friends as “Hap,” after the war named his new island home “Hap-Hazard house.”

The 603rd
Hapgood’s grave marks his service with the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. Before the D-Day landings in northern France, the landscape of England served as this unit’s canvas. Hapgood and his fellow soldiers employed visual deception and designed and constructed fake military installations, such as formations of fictional rubber tanks and airplanes, that when viewed by German intelligence looked real. Later, on the continent of Europe, they also included sonic deception, thus hidden speakers blasted recordings of tank and truck movements. As the quote from Winston Churchill notes about intelligence during the war, “In wartime, truth is so precious
that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
Working in concert, artist/soldiers in a matter of hours “built” dummy airfields or Army Division Headquarters outfitted with blow-up cannons, fighter planes, and Jeeps. Overnight, invisible armies appeared for German intelligence to see and report, however, the M-4 tanks of the 603rd detected by German forces were roughly 100 pounds of rubber inflated with compressed air, not 32 tons of steel. These artist/soldiers avoided the bright springtime colors later used in Hapgood’s advertising campaigns after the war. Drab browns, blacks, and green tones aided their work in confusing the enemy. However, the artistic intent still remained, to strike emotional fear into the enemy. Attempts to show a group of men and machines hiding, but just failing to accomplish this feat, required subtle but immensely complicated techniques. Thus, phantom divisions of artillery, trucks, and tanks, seen from afar, added further German confusion to the fog of war.
The ranks of the 603rd consisted of many artists recruited from the art schools of New York City, who averaged IQ scores of 119. The unit participated in 21 Allied campaigns. Their artist designs of balloon weapons, expertly devised to look like newly minted weapons constructed from the factories of the United States, convinced the Germans of the presence of a U.S. Army unit that in fact did not exist in the “real” form. While their job did not entail the regular handling of real large weapons, this assignment lacked no danger. For the measurement of success of Hapgood and his fellow soldiers in visual deception was not measured in audience applause, but rather German artillery raining down onto their balloon army. Thus, German effort in manpower and weapons rained down on their works of art composed of rubber, not actual American groupings of steel tanks and trucks. However, at times German artillery strikes caught these artists/soldiers in the act of construction, so freshly dug foxholes nearby were required. Hapgood wrote to Mrs. Hoyt’s parents throughout the conflict. These correspondences include a photograph taken from the back of a military truck as the Americans pushed on into land occupied by Nazi forces. One black-and-white image shows a large gathering of youngsters surrounding the vehicle looking up at the American soldiers. Hapgood’s ink-written message on the back states “How Europe looks from the back of GI truck (the way we saw it.) Kids - kids, always kids!”
After the war Hapgood worked as a graphic artist in New York and on Block Island. Before the computerization of advertising campaigns today, ads, whether in store windows or newspapers, were the hand-produced work of artists. Hapgood’s work appeared in front windows of New York department stores, including Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor. His work was so intricate that he employed a magnifying glass in adding detail to his pen and ink drawings.
Hapgood’s art career also included a religious component, and this was showcased for five decades in producing the covers of the magazine America, which is a weekly Catholic publication. His religious works often centered on the Madonna. In addition, his friends looked forward to his Christmas cards, one of which included his drawing of a young Joseph carving a cradle for his son. The Catholic Cardinal Cooke of New York asked Hapgood to complete a piece of art of St. Patrick for the celebration of the saint’s birthday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, his New York place of worship.
Hapgood continued to visit the island and worked almost to the end of his life, which ended in 1995 on his favorite holiday, the Fourth of July, the birthday of the nation he served with bravery and artistic skill. He is buried in the Martin family plot at the Island Cemetery, next to his lifelong friends Charlie and Edith Martin.

Work finding its way Home
In closing my interview with Mrs. Hoyt, she reported a matter of serendipity. After Hapgood’s death her family later purchased an island home on Seaweed Lane. Her son Kevin Hoyt, while laboring in the attic of this house, found a left-behind drawing in a broken frame. In the lower right corner, Kevin, after examining it, found Hapgood’s signature. The pen and ink drawing depicts a small formation of waterfowl in flight, another example of separate beings that exist by relying on the greater group. After being carefully reframed, this piece now serves as another testament to Hapgood’s 90 years of life.
If you have any memories, pieces of art or images connected to John Hapgood, that you would like to share with the Historical Society please reach out to me at